Trailwalker is not just about 4 guys running a 100kms. It’s much more than that. It’s about running and finishing as a team while making sure that the bond in the team is strong from start to finish. The success of finishing tastes sweeter because of this team bond. Trailwalker is also an exercise in logistics. The support crew’s role is crucial. Without the help of a solid support crew and a plan/strategy to help the runners with required logistics (food/water and so on), the team is unlikely to succeed in its goal of finishing as a team in the least possible time. The team does not just comprise of the runners but also comprises of the support crew and the numerous well wishers who are on the trail cheering the team on. This is the reason why I do the Trailwalker every year. It’s a social event, a chance to exchange banter with fellow runners and it teaches you that unity is strength. I read this somewhere: “Alone we go fast, together we go far”. When you have a great team, you can go really, really far.
This was my 7th consecutive Trailwalker and Rupert’s (my teammate) 18th Trailwalker. He turned from a minor to a major today.
Our Support Chief was Dom who coordinated all the logistics on a whatsapp group. Two motorbikes, 5 mules, water, food, checkpoint preparation — the entire spectrum. Not easy. Everyone had to be on time in remote parts of the trail with the required supplies that us runners wanted.
Stages 1 & 2
The start seemed less crowded than usual. Probably because we only had around 110 “S” teams starting at 0830. After the usual “are you ready?” pep talk blazing out of the speakers in Chinese and English, the countdown began. Tilly, Rupert, Michael and I set off to a good start and were accompanied by Gilles who was our first mule for the day. He pretty much carried all our stuff and took orders from us for food and water. By the way, running as a mule and supporting 4 demanding runners is not easy. It’s not just about the heavy bag pack containing 3L+ water that the mule has to carry around; it’s also about running a little faster than the team (while carrying everything) and coping with each individual runner’s demands for water and food. Meaning stopping to fill up water into hyrdrapacks whenever required and then running fast again to catch up with the runners. The mule also has to update the team’s status on the whatsapp Support Group for the Support Crew.
As we were jogging on bits of Stage 1, I took a mini-break to answer nature’s call. After finishing my business, I ran back up on the concrete “trail” towards my team which is when I heard some abuse from behind. In a thick and loud Australian accent someone gave me some abuse about being the “slowest guy in the team”. The voice urged me to run faster and stop fooling around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good look at the source of this voice so I couldn’t come up with any witty retort.
We moved past the dam completing 10% of the OTW (10km!) and entered Stage 2. The climbing began as we started going up Chek Keng. That’s when I heard that familiar abuse again. This time the abuse got louder and I got a good look at the source of the abuse. It was Dawson who continued to be our major source of entertainment on Stage 2. His loud, entertaining voice and slick comments were a welcome distraction. His energy was also contagious. But, I am sure not everyone will agree with me. I could almost see his teammate Sam going faster than everyone else on the team in a vain attempt to run away from Dawson! It was quite interesting watching Dawson in action. He’d make his smart ass comments and be engaged in a serious conversation but just as some random hiker would pass from the opposite direction, he’d turn his head 90 degrees and greet this person with a loud “Hi Mate”, almost startling the innocent hiker! Some of his comments were gold. He told us that his original teammate, John, who had to be replaced this time around because of an injury, was a “pacing machine” but, in terms of company, this new teammate “was certainly an upgrade to John”.
Such quality entertainment and a first class mule service from Gilles, got us through Stages 1/2.
As we reached Pak Tam Au, we had a big gang cheering us on. I remember seeing John, Rachel and Emilie who had our support kits (food mainly). We thanked them and left to start the first major climb on Stage 3.
Stage 3 and Stage 4
All we had to carry at Pak Tam Au was 500ml of water. After about 500m of that initial steep climb, we had two new mules on Stage 3 waiting for us. Dom, our Support Chief who doubled as a mule (a man of many facets) and Nick. Stages 3 and 4 are the harder sections of the Maclehose trail. Muling for runners is more challenging as the mule needs to negotiate the steep trails, carry heavy gear and go back and forth to service the runners. Nick and Dom received frequent requests from us for water and were also responsible for picking up dropped poles and handing it back to us whenever we wanted them.
In order to optimize and average out our team speed, we started using the tow rope. Michael and I started to tow Tilly. It was largely overcast on Stage 3 which was very different from what it was an year back. The cloudy weather certainly helped us keep a consistent pace. It felt great to be on the trails, talking to other teams and exchanging banter with our mules. That’s what makes the Trailwalker so special. It’s one big party on the trails! It’s a social event in nature.
After Stage 3, we hit Sai Sha road and heard a bunch of well wishers supporting us. I saw John again who was busy with his camera taking photos.
Our support crew was waiting for us a little further up from the checkpoint. Rom was there and he had all our food ready. He asked us if we had “special requests”. I told him I wanted something hot and he made me tea! I also saw Cynthia and Irena there. Irena told me that J-Luc had fallen of his bike as he cramped up while turning it around. He came all the way to Sai Kung on his bike just to give us water so I felt sorry to hear that. As we continued on the trail, just a little bit ahead, I saw J-Luc cheering us on and limping a little bit. He pooh-poohed any talk about his fall, telling us that “it happens”. He kept encouraging us to stay strong and run fast!
Again, these are times when you learn that the Trailwalker is really a team event and that the team just doesn’t comprise of the runners. As Michael later said at the finish, the winner is the team, the team that comprises of the runners/support crew and everyone else who encourages the team along the way. This is also why quitting becomes difficult. You feel like you are letting down a big group of people by throwing in the towel early. This is why there are probably more DNFs in solo events and not as much in team events.
The sun made an appearance on Stage 4 as we were climbing up Ma On Shan, but only briefly. The canopy of trees was illuminated when the sun shone upon them which was beautiful to watch.
After we got to the top of Ma On Shan, the skies turned overcast again and a gentle breeze kept us cool. The conditions for running were ideal.
Nick left us after an excellent muling service near Pyramid Hill and Dom serviced the 4 of us all the way up until Gillwell camp. We kept trading places with a Cosmoboys mixed team on Stage 4 and this little exchange of places continued all the way until the final moment on Stage 10!
From Gilwell camp, we ran to Sha Tin pass to a loud welcome from our Support Crew. I saw John taking photos again. Hannes handed me a pack of one of his special Swiss potatoes and told me to share it with everyone! (He probably thought I would devour them all by myself). I also saw Cynthia and Rom who offered us one of his special cups of hot tea again. Running through a checkpoint with so much support made us all feel like celebrities!
Stage 5 and Stage 6
Dom was supposed to leave us after a grueling muling session on stages 3/4 and Milos, our tall and strong mule, was supposed to take over from him. Despite niggles with his foot, Milos still showed up, all set to run Stages 5,6,7 and 8 with us. Knowing that Milos had a problem with his foot, Dom decided to continue running Stage 5 despite having muled through the tough stages 3 and 4.
Milos has prior experience muling and taking orders from exhausted and demanding runners. Last year, he was our mule on the same set of stages and I remember feeling particularly bad on Stage 5. I ordered him around, asking him for water, food, etc. He complied like a good mule. This year, I was still going strong so we actually managed to have a proper conversation on Stage 5.
I also gave Tilly some of Hannes’ potatoes and much like an advertisement for a new pack of chips, she went “yummm” and even took some more! (Tilly is quite selective of what she eats). Hannes’ potatoes got its thumbs up from Tilly which takes feedback for his culinary skills to a whole new level.
We overtook the Cosmoboys mixed team somewhere near the end of Stage 5. I saw Hannes again on Tai Po road and duly took another pack of his coveted potatoes. He said he’d send me the bill later.
As we were going up Stage 6, I gave some of Hannes’ potatoes to Michael who, much like Tilly, went “yummm” after eating them. I told Michael to send an email to Hannes complimenting him on his Swiss culinary skills. I told him that Hannes will never forget a compliment to his Swiss heritage, whether that’s potato-making-skills or his impeccable Swiss punctuality.
It was still bright when we got to Shing Mun which was an encouraging sign. It meant that we were running at a Sub 15 hour pace.
Stage 7 and Stage 8
Our support crew was waiting at Shing Mun and gave us our supplies of food before we set off to do Stages 7/8. Dom made a reappearance, now as a static supporter, only to have his legs tested by us again. One of us forgot our headlamps and he had to make an Olympic Sprint dash to give it to us as we continued jogging on the road to Needle Hill.
Michael towed Tilly all the way up Needle Hill and Rupert started using his poles for the climb. I was falling behind as I couldn’t keep up with Michael’s energy (despite him towing Tilly) and Rupert’s poles-enabled climbing speed.
I was engaged in a conversation with Milos and waiting patiently for the downhill stretch from Needle Hill to Grassy Hill trail. I closed the gap there and we plodded up Stage 7. I saw Sophia supporting a really fast team. She was super strong and very chatty which was a welcome distraction. She also offered me sweet potatoes. I felt like my energy levels were running low but that’s never a problem when there’s a mule around. I asked Milos whether he had something exciting to eat and he offered me a choice between Caramel flavored Gu, Chocolate Gu and something else. He recommended the first one. I had a bit of that and my energy levels came back up to normal levels almost instantly! Not sure what they put in those things but it did the trick today.
We went down Grassy Hill and checked in to CP8 where Rupert’s friend Ben was waiting for us. He was our surprise 2nd mule for Stage 8. I took over from Michael and started to tow Tilly up Tai Mo Shan to keep the team together. Although Tai Mo Shan is at 950m or so, it’s not all that difficult a climb. It’s got this unique terrain which makes it a pleasure to climb up. As an added bonus, you also get great views of Tsing Ma bridge near the end.
As we neared the top, the headlamp started illuminating a strong mist and it felt like the temperature went down 3 degrees or so. The concrete road down to Route Twisk from from Tai Mo Shan was a little hard on Tilly (stitches) and Michael (knees) but neither of them let it bother them!
Upon reaching Route Twisk, we were greeted by a loud enthusiastic voice. “Vincenzo!” yelled Peter which was great to hear! A little further down we had Spiderman (Vic surprised us with his Spiderman costume) and cheerleader Jinha showed up in her pink skirt. Apparently, there was talk of Vic wearing the skirt. Thankfully, he refused.
Peter, Jinhwa and Vic’s combined enthusiasm and all the checkpoint support crew helped us get plenty of energy back!
Stage 9 and Stage 10
We thanked Milos for his excellent muling skills. He told us he’d take a taxi to the finish and meet us there! We half-hoped we could have been in that taxi!
Before leaving Stage 9, I had a special treat from Retha and Hannes who offered me a slice of Margarita Pizza! It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was devouring it like a hungry lion while watching a tired Rupert gulping on his liquid energy from a bottle. He looked like he was having some trouble but it seemed like nothing he couldn’t overcome.
It was a treat to run with Jinhwa and Vic. Their muling enthusiasm kept us in high spirits and they were shouting words of encouragement at us in regular intervals. Vic was taking care of Rupert and Michael while Jinhwa took care of Tilly and I.
We went back in memory lane and remembered our Trailwalker team in 2010! Jinhwa, Vic, Steven and I were part of the Jinhwaboys team and finished the Trailwalker as a team in around 18 hours! Jinhwa, Vic and I gave a shout out to Steven and engaged in chitchat. We eventually approached our penultimate checkpoint, CP9.
Stage 10 saw us slowing down a little bit. We were still running but the fatigue brought down the pace slightly. I had music playing out of my iPhone speakers while Vic and Jinhwa were running back and forth encouraging all of us. Michael was towing Rupert to average out the speed while I continued to tow Tilly.
Somewhere along the long and seemingly never-ending reservoir section, we overtook the HK100 team. One of them was clearly hurting. I asked him if he was okay and he replied “okay, okay”.
Michael had a special surprise waiting for him after we got back on the road from the reservoir stretch. His girlfriend Emilie decided to run the last 5km with us. She joined Vic and Jinhwa in encouraging us. Fueled by this additional source of motivation, we jogged as fast as we could as a team to get to the finish line.
The final 1km stretch seemed like it was longer than usual. We grouped together and ran as a team eagerly waiting for the cameras at the finish line. Jinhwa, Vic and Dom were right behind us shouting out words of encouragement and Vic played The Final Countdown on his phone.
After 14 hours 41 minutes and a taunting, extra 100m run to the finish, the energy of the finish line lit us all up again! We saw Gilles, Milos, Dom, J-Luc, Irina and so many more of our friends at the finish line! My friends from the Hong Kong Trampers — Ringo, Tim, KW, Xiaofung (who flew in from Beijing) were all there congratulating us (as they have always been doing for the past 7 years). The atmosphere was electric!
What can I say! Again, the Trailwalker is not just an experience in running. It’s a lesson in caring for each other in the team and operating as a team. It’s a lesson in eating and drinking to stay fueled, managing and coordinating logistics and a lesson in knowing how lucky you really are for a truly awesome support team!
Special thanks to my teammates and our support crew! Together, we created a new HKTR OTW record!
Tags: Oxfam Trailwalker, THE RACES, Trailwalker 2014